Following a public hearing, the Pendleton City Council voted 5-to-3 to recommend SeaPort Airlines receive the bid for federally subsidized air service to and from Eastern Oregon Regional Airport.
Its recommendation will go to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which operates the Essential Air Service program through two-year contracts.
A majority of council members approved SeaPort's roughly $1.6 million-per-year bid over proposals from both Horizon Air - operating in Pendleton since 1982 - and Hawaii-based company Pacific Wings.
Tuesday night's discussion, however, seemed to boil down to a consideration between SeaPort and Horizon.
SeaPort offered to fly three daily round-trip flights to Portland using nine-seat Pilatus PC-12 single-engine planes.
Horizon gave three options, the cheapest involving round-trip flights to Seattle, some via Walla Walla, at an annual subsidy close to $1.5 million. The second was a combination of flights to Seattle and flights to Portland, some via Pasco, Wash., using an almost $2.3 million subsidy. The third proposal was to fly two non-stop round-trip flights to Portland, at close to $3.2 million a year.
Horizon is switching their fleet over to 76-seat Bombardier Q400 aircraft.
Representatives from those two airlines each gave testimony.
Dan Russo, vice president of marketing and communications for Horizon, said his company listened to the community input during the previous go-round of proposals - which USDOT rejected at the city's recommendation - by including options to Portland. He maintained his company offered better service for customers making other flight and airline connections.
Kent Craford, chief operating officer for SeaPort, said his company was the right fit for a market the size of Pendleton and great for building back a customer base for Pendleton-to-Portland traffic - much of which he said was lost over the past decade to people driving Interstate 84.
"And we present the best opportunity to get those people back in the air," Craford said.
Council members Cheryl Beck, Steve Bjerke and Dan Ceniga voted against the motion to recommend SeaPort.
"I hate to see us go down. I hate to see us go to a smaller plane," Beck said, adding she also considered the loss of jobs for local employees. "I just can't say that to 16 people that you don't have a job anymore."
Eight people reportedly work for Horizon at the Pendleton airport, and eight others reportedly work for the Transportation Security Administration, which no longer would be necessary with SeaPort.
Councilwoman Cheryl Marier, in turn, said it was a "trade-off" when you consider Pendleton businesses that would suffer or fail without good business travel options to Portland.
Al Baxter, chairman of the board for Pendleton Academies, said his institution relies on getting child psychiatrists from the Portland area for well-timed day trips.
"We may be required to discontinue our services if we can't provide that," Baxter said.
In addition to the recommendation to accept SeaPort's bid, the council's motion also exempted a previous airport rule that prohibited allowing single-engine commuter planes.
Another city council article relating to a citizens' appeal of a planning decision will appear later this week in the East Oregonian.